Stolen Moments

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   September 6, 2018

We don’t need the Ten Commandments to tell us that stealing is wrong. We know it inherently, because nobody likes to be a victim of theft. One of the first words most babies learn is “mine!” (and I’m not sure how much later they also learn “yours”).

The concept of private property has a long and honorable history, and it wasn’t until 1840 that a French Anarchist named Proudhon dared to publish a book claiming that Property is Theft. And it took another 130 years, before another “Radical” named Abbie Hoffman took that idea to its illogical conclusion, by publishing a book called Steal This Book.

Incidentally, strange as it seems, according to Hebrew scholars, that revered Biblical injunction “Thou Shalt Not Steal” was originally intended to apply only to stealing people – i.e., kidnapping!

But today, of course, there are many kinds and degrees of stealing, and some are considered much more serious than others. In most cultures, theft in itself is never a capital crime – although some societies still punish thieves with such barbaric penalties as amputation of a hand. 

Ordinarily, we sympathize with someone who steals just to survive – although the original crime of Jean Valjean – the hero of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables – which led to his being imprisoned, by a relatively “enlightened” France, for 19 years, was stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her family.

The worst theft I personally ever suffered was of a bicycle – a loss less grievous in itself than in the audacity of the crime. The bike (a Peugeot I was quite fond of) was taken at night from the rack to which I thought it was well-secured, at the rear of my 18-foot “Sunrader” mini-motor home, parked on a residential street in the peaceful community of Alameda, California. And I was sleeping inside the vehicle at the time!  

The bicycle was never recovered – nor, in a way, was my own sense of overnight street-parking security.

In the value system under which I was brought up, stealing was not so bad if you stole from somebody who could easily afford the loss, or who might not even notice it. This, of course, applied particularly to large companies that in any case were well-insured, and considered small losses as simply part of the cost of doing business. 

But there is another aspect to this whole topic – what I would call “The Romance of Theft.” From the legend of Robin Hood to the innumerable “heist” movies of our own time, the thieves are the heroes, with whom we identify. What is it about stealing that makes it such a popular subject, even if (as for example in the epic of Bonnie and Clyde) innocent people get hurt or killed in the process? Why do we enjoy stories of piracy on the high seas, stagecoach holdups, great train robberies, spectacular thefts of art, of jewels, and of gold?

The answer seems obvious. Whether or not the venture is successful, we can share the excitement of it vicariously, without incurring any of the risk. And if it actually does succeed – let us hope with a minimum of violence – so much the better.

Of course, (as with many other crimes) the most successful thefts of all are those we never hear about, because they are never discovered, or at least never publicized. This may be particularly true of modern computer-crime. But it may also apply to such devious deeds as blackmail, forgery, and embezzlement. In such cases, the victim may have good reasons to want the whole thing hushed up.

Then there are those thefts of which many or most of us have been guilty, probably without even considering them reprehensible. Hotels and restaurants are particularly vulnerable to this kind of petty theft: soaps, shampoos, towels, sweeteners, jams – anything that can easily be smuggled out.

Finally, we confront the species of theft which, for writers, comes with the territory, and which I call “Piracy On The High ©’s.” Of course, I mean stealing words, the Federal offense of Copyright Infringement. Word thieves probably won’t go to prison, but the crime can be a felony, and you might be surprised at the severity of the financial penalties, even if the items stolen are no longer than 17 words. 

In any case, as one piece of my own encapsulated wisdom put it: “No copy of me can possibly be as good or as bad as the original.”    


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